The only time I have been to Greece as it appears on the modern map was when I was barely out of short trousers. I went with that indispensable aid to travel, an aunt, and with the idea that I knew quite a lot about the place. My aorists and iota subscripts, however, were useless; that crucial moment for quoting Simonides on the dead Spartans never turned up. Even the sights were an anticlimax – bones of buildings, hordes of charabancs; the glory that was.
Sex had not yet reared its head, so I didn’t have that distraction. But I remember two other excitements. One was retsina, in unsuitable quantities, the other an experience in Athens when I wandered off alone. There was a demonstration; something, I imagine, to do with collapsing Colonels. It sucked me in and swept me along – bewildered at first, trying to catch hold of something familiar, then encouraged by smiles and guiding hands – until I fell in step, into the rhythm, and ended up chanting with the best of them. When the procession dispersed, having gone nowhere in particular, I was lost, thrilled and intoxicated.
Roumeli had the same effect when I first read it a dozen or so years later; it still does, reading it again another couple of decades on. One is drawn in and immediately disorientated. Who is the outlandish figure in a hairy kilt and hobnailed Ali Baba boots who takes us into the first chapter? A Sarakatsán nomad, apparently . . . The appendix on these people gleefully offers sixteen conflicting derivations for the name. Casting around for the familiar, I plumped for ‘Saracen’, for many features of Sarakatsán life rang bells: the poetry about Turkkilling, for example; the public exposition of bloodied nuptial bed linen; the censing of mothers after birth with nasty-smelling smoke. There were more, and all may be found in the bottom corner of Arabia where I live. But what about the wearing of clothes back to front as a sign of mourning? I had come across that, too
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